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Words to remember: Digital archives help immigrants share their stories

farm laborers in a field
May 05, 2015

On the wall behind Matthew Garcia’s desk hangs a framed black-and-white picture of a woman, her head and shoulders emerging from the thick foliage of a grove of fig trees. She is Garcia’s grandmother, who worked as a farm laborer in California.

His family history is steeped in agriculture.

“My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came here [from Latin America], and were in some ways, in the 1920s and 30s, forced into the migrant stream of agricultural workers throughout California,” he said. “My grandmother picked fruit, picked figs, picked citrus, did all those things. My grandfather was born, as he said, in a lettuce patch in Calipatria, Imperial County, California.”

Garcia, who is the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the Comparative Border Studies Program at Arizona State University, said his family history inspired his academic interest in immigrant agricultural laborers.

In his opinion, farm laborers are often a “forgotten angle” in today’s food-conscious society. He’s been working to change that, in part by gathering the personal stories of the laborers themselves.

Oral history is a research method through which stories, told by the people who experienced them, are collected and archived. It’s “both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies,” according to the Oral History Association website.

Oral histories help to preserve memories for cultural and historical purposes, particularly the memories of marginalized groups that never had a chance to write the history books. Immigrants are one such group.

Tales of the braceros

In 1942, at the height of World War II, agricultural leaders became worried about labor shortages. The Bracero Program was created to bring millions of Mexican guest workers into the U.S. to sustain the labor force. 

Many people have suggested guest worker programs as part of modern-day immigration reform policies. But Garcia cautions that The Bracero Program was rife with problems. For example, the braceros had no rights and could be deported at any time.

The program also brought down the wages of U.S. farm workers, which was one of the reasons that César Chavez campaigned to end it. In 1964 the program did end, but many guest worker programs around the world still suffer from similar human rights abuses.

To learn about this period in history, Garcia invited the braceros and their families to tell their stories with posters written in Spanish.

“We had no idea who would come, but it ended up being very successful,” Garcia said.

The team collected more than 700 interviews and launched the Bracero History Archive, which won the Best Public History Project from the National Council for Public History in 2010. The archive also led to a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit called “Bittersweet Harvest.”

The stories range from short vignettes from people who worked with braceros, to people who are looking for information about relatives, and of course the stories of the braceros themselves, often related in Spanish.

Ron Taylor is a U.S. citizen who worked in the fields alongside braceros when he was a high school student in California. He recalls a summer day when his asthma made it difficult for him to work.

“I began to fall behind and was growing really worried when the bracero in the row to my left began stealthily working my row in addition to his own. Then the one on my right began doing the same thing. Neither of them said a word, but both of them were risking the wrath of the field boss just to help me,” Taylor wrote. “I have never forgotten those acts of kindness or the generosity of spirit they showed. They demonstrated in a very personal way the real purpose of the bracero program, extending an arm to help a neighbor.”

Not everyone was so friendly toward the guest workers, however. Juan Loza, a bracero who was interviewed in Spanish by Mireya Loza, spoke about some of the hardships he encountered. In Lubbock, Texas, he was refused service at a restaurant and violently removed, which was one of “two very big reasons that I felt disdainful, that I felt disappointed with the place,” he said.

When he was sent to work in California, he also faced mistreatment.

“Throughout the whole mile [of field furrows] we had to be bent over with a hoe – twelve inches from start to finish – and we couldn’t get up because there were about three field bosses… we couldn’t [get up] for any reason. They simply sent you back to Mexico again if you didn’t obey them,” he said.

The Bracero History Archive project is complete, but people can still upload stories and images to the site. Now, Garcia is working with the UCLA Labor Center on a new immigration-focused project, Undocumented Voices. The project examines the undocumented youth movement and, like the bracero project, will create a digital archive of oral histories.

Within the immigration debate, Garcia sees his work as building “bridges of understanding,” and helping to highlight immigrants’ humanity. He says it can also help contribute to more informed discussion, such as making people aware of flaws in The Bracero Program so that its mistakes are not repeated in trying to create a solution for current immigration problems.

South Asian American stories

Today, people in the U.S. often associate immigration – particularly undocumented immigration – with Latinos. But there are many non-Latino individuals and communities who have stakes in immigration policy or stories to tell. In fact, a leader of the undocumented youth movement Garcia works with was a young Vietnamese woman, Tam Tran.

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya is an ASU ethnomusicologist who uses oral histories to engage immigrants from the opposite side of the globe. Bhattacharjya is a faculty member in Barrett, The Honors College, and co-chair of the Academic Council of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA).

One reason she finds the archive interesting is that it deals with a racial category that circulates in the context of academics and social and political advocacy, but is only rarely used by most people in the context of their everyday lives. She says most Americans who are lumped into the “South Asian” category self-identify far more specifically, such as Pakistani-American or Punjabi. By defining itself through a category that transcends these more specific identities, the South Asian American Digital Archive encourages people to focus on what they share – as opposed to what divides them. Another unique aspect of the archive is its inclusiveness.

“People can contribute their own stories no matter where they’re from, how they identify themselves, or what their socio-economic backgrounds are,” Bhattacharjya said. This inclusiveness is a big part of what makes the archive a vital resource for both communities and researchers. Ensuring representation, present and historical, is another.

“If someone's teaching an immigration history course that focuses on the United States, it's not necessarily the case that South Asian Americans would be considered specifically within the standard textbook, even though they're one of the most rapidly growing populations in this country today,” Bhattacharjya said. “We aim to provide a resource that people can use, not just in colleges but also in high schools, even in grade schools.”

She added, “For instance, if you wanted to do a report on Asian Americans in Congress, you would want to know about Dalip Sigh Saund. SAADA's the kind of place where you actually find out about him. Until SAADA began to collect his materials, there wasn't a lot otherwise written on him that people could access. But now there's this body of material to look at.”

Dalip Singh Saund was a Punjabi Sikh who represented California’s 29th Congressional District from 1957-1963. He was the son of well-off Sikh parents from the northern Indian village of Chhajalwadi. In 1920, he arrived in the U.S. to do post-graduate work at the University of California, studying first food preservation and then earning a doctorate in mathematics.

Due to his immigration status, Saund could not find a university position in mathematics and shifted his interest to local agriculture. He moved to the Imperial Valley and was a farmer during the Great Depression but after he became a U.S. citizen in 1949, he ran for municipal district judge. He won the election and became well regarded as a judge (A Reader’s Digest article calls his decisions “Lincolnesque”). In 1956 he became the first Asian to be elected to Congress and the rare Democrat to be elected by the heavily Republican 29th District.

This simple act of gathering and displaying accurate information can make a big difference in people's lives. Bhattacharjya recalls hearing from some of her students who attended a lecture by SAADA’s co-founder and executive director, Samip Mallick.

“They said things like, ‘Wow, it was interesting to see someone who looks like me in Congress that early in the 1960s… I thought immigrants and people like me weren't really part of America at that point,’” she said. “But SAADA’s collection establishes that we have these stories of people being very much a part of the U.S. and U.S. history much earlier than most people recognize. So it changes people's ideas of belonging and identity and citizenship.”

Even the act of interviewing can make a difference, as it helps people realize that their stories matter and that their community is real.

In the future, Bhattacharjya hopes to work with SAADA to get ASU students more involved in collecting stories from Arizona’s South Asian community.

“South Asians in the Southwest are a relatively new community, not especially established but very rapidly growing,” she said. “There's nothing written on these people so it'll be great to get some of their stories and histories into the archive. We hope to develop an ASU course in the future that helps students learn interview techniques, learn about doing archival work and actually generate material for the archive.”

By doing that, the stories people carried with them, whoever they are – immigrants, first-generation Americans, guest workers – will be carried on for future generations.

Written by Erin Barton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.